At sometime someone has probably told you to “just be yourself”. This cliché implies two things: that the task is simple and even logical: and that being oneself is enough. If it were as simple as it seems, we would never have to worry how to act in new situations or question whether the self we presented to others was appropriate.
Self acceptance is a springboard for all our successes and failures. It is a particularly difficult task for the adolescent. The familiar and comfortable self we knew in childhood is in a state of change. All the changes in his body (i.e. sexual development, physical size, and muscular development) and changes in his cognitive development necessitate a modification of his childhood self. He is constantly told by others that he is growing up, and with this growth comes new responsibilities, certain rights and advantages, and expected behaviors. Added to the changes and expectations is the conflict that arises between the internalization of values accepted by society and the need to reject those values in favor of what his conscience tells him is right or wrong. Consequently, he begins to ask questions such as: “Who am I?” “What do I believe in?” “Would others like me if they knew what kind of person I am?”
These changes and new attitudes of mind are a source of anxiety for the adolescent, partly because he does not have a clearly defined sense of self and cannot instantaneously become an adult, and he has to learn to accept his particular person. Until he can get through these obstacles, he is apt to have low self-esteem.
This unit has as its major focus: raising the self-esteem of early adolescents. My interest in this topic derives from a three-year observation of incoming sixth grade classes. There are three groups of students that stand apart from the others. They are the low-achievers, the socially disadvantaged, and the students who are discipline problems. One personality factor that is common to most students in these three groups is their low self esteem. Efforts to bolster their self-esteem have generally failed because they are unable to recognize any worthwhile accomplishment they’ve made.
A familiar technique used with low-achievers is based on the success factor. Most teachers realize that success is an important factor in improving the self-image. In their goal to provide successful experiences, teachers sometimes only call on the low-achiever to respond to questions when they are likely to know the answers. Another example of this misuse of success is assigning activities which aren’t challenging and provide no opportunity for the student to practice a higher level of thinking. Students can “see through” this sham. They know that the praise they received does not measure up to the praise another student might receive for completing a more difficult activity. The problem is further complicated by the teasing and disparaging remarks made by other students. Thus, the word “can’t” is engraved on the minds of these students.
This curriculum unit is intended for teachers of early adolescents. It is divided into three sections. The first section provides an overview of traits that are characteristic of adolescents seeking identity. If teachers are familiar with adolescent problems, they can guide them toward understanding that their struggles are not unique but are a normal part of human development.
The second section includes a discussion of selected readings. Books are a main source of information for the adolescent reader. Through these readings, he can discover people who are much like himself. He can also discover how they solved their problems.
The final section includes additional activities teachers can use to raise the self-esteem of their students.
The act of searching for oneself is a complex and difficult process. It is further complicated by some confusion as to what the self is. Luella Cole says a definition of self should recognize the presence of unconscious elements in the motivations and needs of an individual; as well as recognize the conscious efforts to make adjustments within the world and derive an identity which has continuity, consistency, and adaptability.
In reworking his identity there are several traits that are characteristic of the early adolescent:
1. He is critical of others yet sensitive to their criticisms. He feels their criticisms are unjust because they don’t really understand him.
2. He values his solitude for it allows him to think without distraction. At home he might seek refuge in his room. In school he might find a quiet corner.
3. He is preoccupied with his body and self. The changes which take place at the onset of pubescence in size, body proportions, and secondary sexual characteristics generally occur rapidly. Understandably, the body attains a new value. When physical changes are not concurrent with sexual development, the adolescent is likely to perceive this imbalance as evidence of sexual inadequacy.
4. He experiences swings in mood from elation to depression. These moods are usually the result of successes or failures in personal relationships or school work.
5. He rebels against adults and their values. This derives from his fear of losing his individuality. Conflicts may arise because of dress styles, dating privileges, or eating habitats.
6. He gravitates toward his peer group. The group provides him with a sense of belonging. But in seeking admission into the group, he must comply with the dictates of the group.
7. He reevaluates his stand on issues such as: religion, drugs, sex, and world affairs. He wants to feel certain his moral standards reflect his values and not those of his parents.
Given this picture of the internal problems the adolescent has to contend with, we can now examine the effect they have on his self-esteem.
Esteem refers to an individual’s satisfaction with his identity; his over-all judgment of himself. It may range from high to low.
The way in which an individual perceives himself is of real importance to the character of his behavior. People tend to act as they perceive themselves to be. When youngsters have feelings of unworthiness, weakness, or inferiority, they might display delinquent behaviors to mask their real feelings. Sometimes this behavior is a way of communicating to others that they feel lonely, unloved, ignored, inadequate, or less than a person.
Other behaviors that might occur as a result of low self-esteem are belligerence, passivity, defiance of authority figures, and alienation.
There is no easy recipe for raising the esteem, but parents, peers, and teachers have considerable effect on how children perceive themselves.
Individuals sometimes evaluate themselves on the basis of information conveyed within the family. In some families the criteria for acceptability might be beauty, athletic prowess, or intelligence. Children live up to the expectations of their parents. When they fail to meet these expectations, they are likely to have poor self-images. Therefore, it is important that parental expectations be realistic and reasonable. The child who has parents that take pride in him for being what he is will have higher self-esteem than one whose parents are never satisfied.
Family attitudes toward body image also affect self-esteem. Our culture has preconceived standards of the ideal body. It is slim, well-proportioned, unblemished, and lacking any defects. When parents overemphasize these standards, youngsters who are obese, extremely thin, physically disabled, or suffering from skin disorders are destined to fall short of those standards and have low self-esteem.
Another component of family life affecting the level of self-esteem in adolescents is the attitude and character of parents. Janice Gibson cites Stanley Coppersmith’s experimental findings of self-esteem in boys. His findings revealed that children are likely to have high self-esteem when their parents have a clear definition of their roles, are well adjusted, are aware of their children’s needs and interested in nurturing those needs, and are accepting of them.
The need to belong and be approved of by his peers is another of the adolescent’s deepest needs. In
, Dacey cites these purposes of the peer group as summarized by Rogers:
1. The “radar” function. Adolescents use their peers to test out ideas and behaviors. The feedback they get is used to change the behaviors as needed.
2. Replacement for father. Most teenagers seek independence from parental control and judgment, but the need for a father figure remains. The group leader often serves as surrogate father.
3. Support for independence. In seeking their emancipation from their parents, adolescents often feel guilty and fear that their parents will reject them. The peer group provides the needed support because its members share similar problems.
4. Ego building. The peer group makes one feel good about himself at a time when his self-esteem is low.
5. Psychic attachment. Peers fill the need for companionship and security.
6. Values orientation. The peer group is used as a means of solving problems. Adolescents can test various value systems, discuss them, and choose from a number of options.
7. Status setting. The group lets the adolescent know how important or unimportant he is; there by giving him a more realistic image of how others perceive him.
8. Negative identity. Sometimes the adolescent joins the group to rebel or prove a point to someone else and not because the group’s members share the same preoccupations and problems as he.
9. The avoidance of adult requirements. When adult attitudes and values conflict with those of the peer group, the latter often wins out.
Rejection by one’s peers can very often cause low self-esteem because youngsters are not self-reliant enough to stand alone. Social rejection might stem from personality factors such as shyness, selfishness, dependence, and prudery; or superficial matters of dress, manners, attitudes, and appearance. Any trait that deviates from the norm might relegate the adolescent to social limbo.
Self-esteem is also affected by the experiences children have in school. Many educational programs are competitive and provide numerous opportunities for children to measure themselves against others in terms of intelligence, physical skills, and popularity. This measurement can have both positive and negative effects on self-image.
As teachers, we can help adolescents by setting expectations that are appropriate for the age level and intelligence ability, stressing positive activities and playing down negative ones, and explaining what is happening to them.
It we understand the point of view of this age group, we know that they need opportunities to act independently, but at the same time, feel a sense of belonging; they need opportunities to verbalize their conflicts, frustrations, and other emotional difficulties; and they need to know we are genuinely interested in them.
It is important that adolescents know that the road they’re traveling has been traveled by countless numbers of teenagers and is being traveled by many now. The feeling of aloneness can best be eradicated through reading and group discussions. This section includes discussions of readings which highlight problems faced by adolescents today. Sample lesson plans and activities planned around the readings are an addendum to this section of the unit.
These selections can be used for enrichment in reading, to teach social skills in social studies, and to reinforce creative and written expression in language arts.
We are living in a period of change. This is evidenced by the increase in violent crimes, drug abuse, and premarital sex; high rate of unemployment; discord on moral and religious issues; and the break-down in family structure. Every individual’s life is directly or indirectly affected by these changes. In order to cope with these problems, students must learn to make effective decisions. Paula Danziger’s novel,
The Cat Ate My Gymsuit
, provides an opportunity for students to observe how a contemporary makes decisions. While the problems and changes are not as profound as the ones stated herein, the skills can be transferred to any dilemma the child might encounter.
Sixth graders might especially enjoy reading this novel because it describes a teenager with a negative self-image. She is conscious of her body image and invents one hundred excuses for not dressing for gym. They should relate to the character’s feelings because many of them are self-conscious about wearing shorts, undressing in the locker room, and taking showers. This would be a prime time to discuss the reasons they feel as they do and guide them toward discovering ways in which to change these negative feelings into positive ones.
The Trouble With Thirteen
, by Betty Miles, is included in the required reading because it gives recognition to feelings about divorce, jealousy, separation, and puberty. The story tells of two friends’ struggle to maintain their friendship despite one friend’s move to another city. Class discussions about friendship will allow students to discern those qualities that ensure and destroy friendships. Discussing feelings about divorce, jealousy, separation, and puberty allows students to compare and contrast their feelings with those of their classmates.
Psychosomatic illness and adolescent conflict in the form of rebellion are the underlying themes of Judy Blume’s novel,
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t
. The story is told by Tony, a sensitive thirteen year old with problems. His problems begin after his father invents a new product and makes the family rich. His anxiety is caused by his friend’s thievery; the shabby manner in which his mother treats his grandmother and her obsession with the family’s new lifestyle and rise to social prominence; and his preoccupation with sex. Whenever he encounters a problem he can’t handle, he experiences severe stomach cramps. This theme provides an opportunity for teachers to introduce students to the various support systems within the home, school, and community. Youngsters need to know that they are not alone; but there are people who can help them in crisis situations.
In discussing Joel, Tony’s friend, students may not be able to initially determine the cause of his stealing, but they should note that it is not out of necessity. By delving into his character (listing character traits); studying his behavior patterns (attitude and actions); and evaluating comments he makes about his parents, students might arrive at logical explanations for his stealing.
The final selection is a poem entitled “My Friend, Leona” from
People I’d Like to Keep
by Mary O’Neill. In the poem the speaker describes her friend. Leona is a very imaginative girl. She uses her imagination to mask her true feelings about poverty, her absent father, her mother’s need to work, her appearance, and her living conditions. This poem paints a vivid picture of some one with low self-esteem.
The task of raising one’s self-esteem cannot be accomplished in a short time. Individuals must realize that it is on-going and that one’s esteem may fluctuate with each experience that yields success or failure. However, when they have a more realistic image of themselves; understand the nature of the many changes they’re experiencing; discover contemporaries who share similar conflicts; and realize that parents and teachers share a sincere interest in their well-being, they are likely to have a higher opinion of themselves.
The success of this unit will be determined by the content and tone of a personal essay written by each student entitled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Me, But Didn’t Ask.”